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<nettime> On the Margins of the Blockbuster
DeeDee Halleck on Wed, 27 Oct 1999 20:03:23 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> On the Margins of the Blockbuster


This is the response I did at the Herb Schiller conference to Bram
Dijkstra's very unidimensional non dialectic look at the market and the
art world. It is addressing pre - net art pretty much. Dijkstra doesn't
even use email and I was trying to meet him on his own turf (19th
cent.art). 

On the Margins of the Blockbuster
Discussion of Bram Dijkstra's talk
Oct 2, 1999

While no one can deny the corrupt appropriation of art and artists by both
private and corporate capital, there are certain contradictions within the
structures of art production and consumption that need to be examined. We
live in strange times... Blue Chip gallery owner Mary Boone recently spent
30 hours in jail for an exhibit that included live ammunition rounds. 
Mayor Giuliani is railing against corporate funding of art and the use of
museums as a tool of the art market in his scathing attack on the
"Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. 

What is good art?  Perhaps it would be that which transcends the fads and
day to day investment strategies of collectors and dealers, the hysteria
of politicians and the scorn of academia. 

The trick for the both investors and art curators is to guess which artist
will pass that test of time.  Contradiction: those artists who stand the
test of time are often the more cantankerous, the more difficult to
control, the ones who rage against the very venues in which they appear. 

Did Bougereau simply go out of fashion with wealthy patrons and their art
establishment lackeys, or is it that his art remained banal and conformist
despite his formidable technical skill?  Maybe there's a reason that those
British portrait painters lost "value" other than the fading usefulness of
their ancestor flounting. What about Turner?  He is certainly one artist
who transcends fads.  His work has grown in importance in a way that
leaves portrait painters in the dust, or perhaps the steam of his colossal
train station. 

Nor is "fashion" merely the work of autonomous critics.  One thing Bram
does not mention is the insidious role of the USIA in regards to the
promotion of abstract expressionism Serge Guilbaud has dug up quite
interesting facts in this regard. To cite one example: the major national
security subsidy of the 1950's blockbuster photo exhibition, Family of
Man, which after its popular opening at MOMA, toured 26 countries at the
behest of the USIA no doubt to promote the "universality" of the "American
Century". 

The blockbuster art exhibition phenomonen started quite a while ago,
witness the Armory Show in the 1920's which introduced Duchamp's Nude
Descending a Staircase to Manhattan.  I must confess a certain weakness
for blockbuster shows.  I recently visited a Millet exhibition in
Massachusetts.  Aside from a painting here or there (the haunting "Man
with a Hoe" at the Getty, for example) there had never been a chance for
me to see the work as a whole-- work which is scattered across several
continents.  The blockbuster dollars paid the various insurance and
freight companies to allow this work to come together for a tour of
several years.  I highly recommend the exhibit.  For one thing it is an
interesting insight into the sources of impressionism to which Bram
alluded.  Millet's use of light was keenly noted by Van Gogh, who at one
point called him the "father of us all".  Actually one of the special
aspects of Millet's work for me was his lack of paternalism and especially
his lack of misogyny towards women.  Is there any other male painter of
his era who so resolutely refused to use women's naked bodies?  His women
are workers with equal strength and dignity to the men. 

Blockbuster? Yes.  There were bus loads of women from Connecticut, hordes
of scruffy camp children and their counselors.  Am I being sappy when I
say that it felt nice to see them there, learning about a humanist
painter? 

Abstraction or humanism-- capital will use whatever it can.  The fact that
an exhibit can have integrity, can be a source of critical assessment of
the human condition testifies to the fact that the art system lives and
runs on contradiction.  There have to be good curators and good projects
out there.  Otherwise the system wouldn't work as well as it does. 

As to abstraction, I think we have to treat abstraction concretely and
look at the particular.  Capital takes the function of abstraction and
generalizes it into exchange.  Nothing is sacred, everything is grist for
the profit mill.  As Marx and Engels said in the Manifesto, "all
traditional forms drown in the icy waters of egotistical calculation." 
Capitalist abstraction is corrosive: it dissolves all of nature and
humanity into a calculus of exchange. 

But is abstraction in art always a tool of capital?  What about Malevitch,
Rodchenko, Mondrian, African masks, or shields from New Guinea?  I
recently saw the stone mosaics of Mitla near Oaxaca which show the human
capacity to see abstract form in the midst of a concrete sensuous
environment.  It is a human product that abstracts from the land.  The
"art" of it is the tension between particular forms and overriding
landscapes.  The work of Richard Serra can resonate within the industrial
urban landscape with a similar tension and clarity.  Because Serra is a
high priced commodity in the art market does not per se negate his work. 
The stone columns of Mitla are pure Richard Serra. 

Within the art market, Serra perfectly illustrates the art establishment's
contradictory need for negation.  Serra is someone whose rage against the
capital machine only increases the market value of the work.  Because his
powerful critique is taken, rightly so, as a sign of integrity. 

There is a peculiar dance of power between the museums, the foundations,
the collectors and the curators.  The power the artists muster is that
power to be contrary.  Without that contrariness, they would not pass as
artists. 

This is why I propose that Herb Schiller is honored in the art world in a
way that far exceeds his recognition, at least domestically in the social
science discipline of "Communication".  A student of visual arts is more
likely to have a Herb Schiller essay in her reading packet than a social
science student, even at this august institution ((UCSD).  Herb's
contrariness is exactly what the art field needs.  He has been a hero at
the Whitney Museum, the Kitchen, the Wexner Museum and many other bastians
of art power because of his integrity.  Integrity is necessary to art. 

The NEA cannot exist without peer panels, and peer panels which have a
certain degree of integrity to them.  Get a bunch of artists in a room to
give out bucks to other artists and, well, they have to get beyond their
egos-- integrity is their only currency.  Therefore there is consternation
over the NEA and the right wing correctly reads the peer decisions as
insurrection.  With peer panels, you will have controversy and
insurrection.  But without peer panels, the whole idea of arts funding
loses legitimacy.  Without insurrection there is no art.  To be defined as
an artist is to be a rebel. 

I was an adolescent in the uptight suburbia of Chattanooga, Tennessee,
when Life Magazine ran the David Duncan photo series on Picasso's life. 
What a life: romping with goats and gorgeous children on cliffs above the
Mediterranean, drinking huge goblets of wine in a cluttered studio while
dressed only in shorts.  I immediately knew what I wanted to be when I
grew up.  It was a total rejection of the southern bourgeois trap toward
which my schoolmates were headed. 

Here in Southern California, those students who declare that they will
major in the arts are different from communication students. For an Orange
County kid to say she wants to be an artist is per se a rebellious act. 
Communication students are more practical.  I am always astounded with
their career goals.  The more ambitious ones want to be the weather girl
on a local news show.  Most of them would gladly settle for a job, as they
put it, in "public relations"  When asked to further define this, they go
on to explain that they might like to work for a real estate or
advertising firm.  I take it as my goal to, at the very least, make them
see that there are other options.  Being an artist is perhaps the most
courageous thing they could do. 

The Duncan piece on Picasso was the beginning of a still extant tradition
of the artist as celebrity and super-star, the Interview effect. No one
played the celebrity role as well as Warhol himself.  Unfortunately
artists have allowed themselves to be suckered into this convenient
publicity and we have Philip Glass selling Dewars Scotch, while Robert
Longo sells designer suits.  I'm not sure any more if those visual arts
students want to paint all day on the edge of the Mediterranian or just
sip Dewars in designer suits at a trendy Chelsea bar. 

But even this trend is changing.  The glam artist may be on the way out. 
Now visual arts departments are getting students who want technical
training to work in html. Talented young people are whisked away to design
web pages, CD-ROMs, video games, special effects for the blockbuster
movies, and digital sound systems. In the canyons of lower Broadway,
Silicon Alley and Wiltshire Boulevard, they sit in front of power
computers coaxing their software into rotating speeding buses and blasting
target bridges with the latest 3-D techniques. As they morph celluloid
monsters, their bosses are morphing with each other on the top floor. The
creative youth whose brains are the engines of these media machines are
deeply cynical about both the world and about the corporations that have
hired them. Does it matter if they are working for Cap Cities or Disney or
Westinghouse or Murdoch, or a murky combination of any or all of these? 
They are incapable of talking or thinking abstractly about the system or
themselves. 

On the margins of the art "market", but sometimes hacking into museum or
gallery venues, are many artists whose rage has been put in the service of
social change.  I recently helped out with a huge national art project
called 911 Mumia, in which over 200 galleries and museums devoted space to
artist's work, in a protest against the death sentence on behalf of radio
artist/journalist Mumia Abu Jamal.  I would like to toast those artists
who both buck and use the system:  Seth Tobankan, Peter Kuper, Erik
Drooker, Sue Coe, and the other artists of the World War III comics,
Barbara Kruger, Leon Golub, Betty Saar, Jimmy Durham, Leon Golub, Allen
Sekula, Dread Scott, Keith Haring, Rigo, Craig Baldwin, Shulea Cheang,
Martha Rosler, Adrienne Jenik, Igor Vamos, Yvonne Rainer. There are also
those subversives who work to create new modes of showing and sustaining
art practice in a stand against the very notion of individualism:  the
collectives such as Guerrilla Girls, Bread and Puppet Theater, the Center
for Land Interpretation, Group Material, Paper Tiger and in the San Diego
region, the Border Arts Workshop.  And then there are those who work
directly to counter the very notion of market, such as Max Schumann, whose
self defined "Cheap Art" paints the price (anywhere from 50 cents to 15
dollars) directly on the painting itself in a defiant gesture of non
compliance. Vinceremos. 


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